‘Snack Shack’ Review: Gabriel LaBelle and Conor Sherry Play Teenage Hustlers in a By-the-Book Coming-of-Age Tale

Can you remember how you spent your childhood summers? Were they by the pool eating concession stand junk? Biking everywhere you went? Fist-fighting your best friend? Falling for a girl from out of town? Something along those lines? Or maybe you just saw a movie like that. That kind of easy familiarity is what teen comedy “Snack Shack” comfortably sets up shop on. Armed with a talented cast, writer-director Adam Rehmeier’s 1991-set feature happily squares itself in a tradition of teenage hedonism and broad learning opportunities, settling into a generic but warm glow.

Early-20s actors Conor Sherry and Gabriel LaBelle lead the film, stretching the laws of verisimilitude playing 14-year-old best friends, but emerging plausibly teenaged with their lame-brain rapport. The two play AJ and Moose, a pair of hustlers hunting for their next score after home-brewing a “drinkable as fuck” beer. When the friendly college-aged lifeguard Shane (Nick Robinson) notes that the poolside Snack Shack is up for summer rental, the boys see dollar signs.

Rehmeier angles the style for a nostalgia factor, naturally. (The production shot on location in his hometown of Nebraska City.) A sweaty microwaved hot dog has rarely been photographed with such affection. And the filmmaker peppers in plenty of other anachronisms to establish a sunny tone, including a retro title card with production companies, colorful costuming and plenty of Gen X soundtrack staples. (They even locked down the rights to “Age of Consent.”)

AJ and Moose aren’t the most cautious businessmen. An opening scene introduces the two puffing cigarettes across state lines, absconding from a school trip to put up bets at the tracks (and not even on horses, but on dogs). AJ’s parents (David Costabile and Gillian Vigman) don’t approve of their son’s choice in friends, instead harboring hopes that he will reach for more socially acceptable entrepreneurial ventures. But after Moose pressures the more sheepish AJ to empty his bank account for an overpaying bid on the Snack Shack, the only way out of the red is going all-in on the business.

AJ and Moose’s bad behavior tends to snowball like their schemes. The two bask in a healthy range of vices: drinking, gambling, even just cussing. “Snack Shack” is littered with profanity, a decision that’s neither endearing nor irritating, but instead numbs into a unifying age-appropriate dialect. “Hit that shit!” one teen commands as another takes the most dainty sip of light beer. Rehmeier can’t summon much of a shock factor to play his characters’ exclamatory way of speaking for laughs, but there’s a credible, somewhat soulful lameness to it. The boys upcharge hot dogs by writing four-letter words on them with condiments — a too-proud-of-itself novelty that sums up how they approach language.

Another effectively grating profanity: “Shit Pig,” the awful pet name that girl-next-door Brooke (Mika Abdalla) calls AJ throughout the film. As with plenty of teen features before, this prickly crush isn’t exactly the sharpest-drawn character — a shortcoming further accentuated by the annoying fluttery score that creeps in whenever she shares a scene with AJ. But Abdalla and Sherry do strike a winning chemistry, and the actress offers some subtle indicators that Brooke’s ironic detachment masks a more private sadness. “Snack Shack” largely operates as a slack series of shenanigans, but the budding teen romance offers a spine, as well as an opportunity to get dramatic once Brooke draws the attention of Moose, predictably putting the boys’ friendship in jeopardy.

LaBelle, too, makes a strong impression. Having already been headhunted by Steven Spielberg to play the director’s soft-spoken self-portrait in “The Fabelmans,” the 21-year-old actor proves his mettle once again here, amping it up as a fake-it-till-you-make-it alpha, whose gung-ho demeanor clearly masks some emotional deficiencies. The cast shows talent across the board, further tested by a tonal rug pull in the final act that has the characters confronting more serious matters than crushes and candy bars.

Rehmeier proves less versatile in that transition. The director possesses a winning sense of comic discovery, welcoming unexpected ways to extend awkward interactions — like when AJ seems to accidentally fall of his bike while rushing away from Brooke — while also knowing when to put a button on scenes whenever a character achieves profound embarrassment. Like its teenage heroes, “Snack Shack” scraps together a scant but charismatic personality working among used parts. But once the story has nowhere to go but a tearjerker denouement, its world seems rather thin.

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